Artist paints free funerary portraits

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Artist paints free funerary portraits


Kim Gwang-an

All photographs are intimately tied to memory, says Kim Gwang-an, 80, but funerary portraits are especially so.

Graduating from the College of Commerce at Seoul National University, Kim worked as a branch manager of a Middle Eastern branch of Daelim Industrial until 1997. A decade later, he discovered photography.

“I had a lot of thoughts on what to take pictures of in the beginning,” he says, “so I spent four years going about thinking to take photos of the Seomjin River, but that was quite an innocent thought. What I’m saying is, while I was looking through my photos, suddenly all I could see was the river. I came to the realization that the true being of the river was the people, their lives, their culture. So, I quit.”

Kim began volunteering at Jongmyo Park in Jongno District, central Seoul, in September 2014.

“[The park] was a place where retired people would spend the day with cheap meals and alcohol,” he says. “People who were pushed away by society and their families. So I decided to make them funerary portraits.”

In a corner of the park’s parking lot, he setup his impromptu studio while resting on a fishing chair with a camera in one hand and a tripod in the other. Park Yeong-ja, 76, his wife, handed out slips of paper marked with numbers.

The couple presented their subjects with 27 centimeters (10.6 inches) by 35 centimeters photos afterwards.

When asked how they could afford to incur these costs, Kim and Park explained their friends and family were supporting them in their philanthropy.

As an aside, Kim’s three sons are all university professors. The eldest, Philip Kim, was the first Korean in a field of science to be considered for a Nobel Prize in 2010.

After a few injuries, he took a brief break from volunteering and began compiling photos. The result is his book “Cheoninbo,” or “Photos of a Thousand People.”

“Aren’t funerary portraits the most natural and honest?” he asks. “Considering their advanced age, their expressions are dry, but at least there’s no need to put on a false front to anyone.”

Kim sees the faces of his subjects as symbols of Korea’s aging society.

“Due to the Jongmyo Park historic preservation efforts, these people will soon be pushed out of this space,” he says.

Kim applied for “Cheoninbo” to be added to the Seoul Museum of History archive’s permanent collection, and his proposal was accepted in March.

Kim is now preparing for an exhibition, “Our Final Faces,” which will go from May 31 to June 6.

“Because all 1,000 photos can’t be exhibited, I’ve prepared video art utilizing an LCD screen with Kim Jeong-hyeon, photographer and exhibition manager,” he says. “In order to convey the emotions I felt, I will attach poems that I’ve chosen myself.”

The exhibition title references a poem by poet Moon Tae-jun.

“When the exhibition concludes,” Kim says, “I’m thinking of emptying my head for three months and picking up cooking. After eating my wife’s food all my life, I want to try preparing food myself at least once. I’m also contemplating other new photographs. I mean, I’m still 80.”

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